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Facebook takes sides on COVID-19 protests

Facebook takes sides on COVID-19 protests

Good morning! This Tuesday, California taps big tech to help bridge the digital divide, Facebook takes on the protestors taking on social distancing, and Alibaba throws billions into the cloud wars.

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People Are Talking

Andrew Yang has some thoughts on that Marc Andreessen essay we mentioned Monday:

  • "If I developed an app that made things more convenient for urban professionals, then there have been powerful incentives in place to get me the money I need, but … our biggest problems generally don't have market-based solutions and the true solutions often aren't aligned with profit maximizing activities the way they are currently defined."

The FCC opted not to extend the window for cities and first responders to comment on net neutrality, and Jessica Rosenworcel doesn't like it:

  • "We are in the middle of an unprecedented nationwide crisis. Understandably, local governments and public safety officials have asked for more time to comment so that they rightfully can focus on responding to the public health emergency at hand. It's shameful that the FCC did not heed their request."

John Martinis, the creator of Google's quantum hardware group, said he left the company after being dumped into an advisory role:

  • "Since my professional goal is for someone to build a quantum computer, I think my resignation is the best course of action for everyone."

The Big Story

Big tech steps in to help solve the digital divide

According to the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, about 20% of California students don't have high-speed internet or a computer at home. More than 40% said they don't have "the laptop, Chromebook, or tablet needed to access distance learning."

  • A few weeks ago, Newsom called on companies all over California to pitch in and help bridge this digital divide.
  • Google was the first to step in, offering 4,000 Chromebooks and 100,000 Wi-Fi hot spots to students in California. (Google's also been offering Chromebooks to students in need around the world.)

Yesterday, Newsom announced a huge set of donations — money, equipment, services and more — from companies all over the country.

  • T-Mobile and Amazon donated 23,000 tablets between them. Apple added "the equivalent of 9,000 iPads," which … you would think would just be 9,000 iPads, but what do I know?
  • HP and Lenovo donated 9,000 Chromebooks between them, and Microsoft donated 1,000 Surfaces.
  • Verizon and AT&T are also donating service and devices, and making their plans cheaper for some people.
  • Tech leaders, from Aaron Levie to Craig Newmark to Jack Dorsey to the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, also gave millions to the cause.

In all, 70,000 students will receive devices. These gifts are great and important, but they're only part of the plan to connect the people who need it. To see what else is happening, look to a 60-day pilot project headed to Sacramento in May:

  • The plan is to create roving hot spots, including repurposed buses, each of which can provide internet to a 500-foot radius. They'll park for 4-8 hours, so people can connect from their homes or at a socially responsible distance.
  • If the pilot works, you could start to see these hot spot buses in cities all over California. It's a lot cheaper than laying fiber or putting up more cell towers.

Like Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda told me a few weeks ago, this school year is just about getting through to summer. This summer is about making sure that no matter what school looks like next year, every student can participate.

Moderation

Facebook vs. protestors vs. social distancing

Over the weekend, anti-social-distancing protesters faced off with health care workers in Colorado. Meanwhile, in Ohio, angry citizens tried to force their way into the statehouse.

What's not new about these protests is that they're mostly organized on Facebook. Some of the largest lockdown protest groups on the platform accumulated nearly 200,000 members by Sunday.

What is new? Facebook's taking a side.

It's removing content that promotes anti-quarantine protests using false information, such as saying social distancing doesn't stop the virus's spread.

  • "We do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that down," Mark Zuckerberg said Monday.
  • Zuckerberg said he's aware the company is walking a thin line by removing protest content. But he said that unlike "normal political discourse," it's easy to see the risk of "imminent physical danger" created by false content about the pandemic.

Beyond the posts themselves, Facebook's looking primarily at the legality of the events they're organizing. It's taken down protest messages in California, New Jersey and Nebraska because of those states' current restrictions on gatherings.

  • Initially it seemed the company was coordinating with local governments to take down protest events. That may not be the case: "We reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders, not about removing specific protests on Facebook," a company spokesperson told POLITICO.
  • Donald Trump Jr., Josh Hawley and other conservatives are … not fans of the policy.

Hours after news of Facebook's approach broke, groups braced for action from the company. In one public group called "Protest the lockdowns" a user wrote: "This group will soon be gone. Please add as many friends as you can. Where do we set up after this?"

A MESSAGE FROM EXCELLA

Excella

If you can't see how AI makes its decisions, how can you trust the results?

The answer lies in Explainable AI or XAI.

Explainable models provide transparency — so you can stay accountable to customers, build trust, and make decisions with confidence.

Learn more about Explainable AI (XAI)

TV

Coronavirus gets its own streaming service

One thing we've been tracking here at Protocol is all the ways groups like the CDC and WHO are working to share information — they're at the top of News Feeds and Twitter timelines, on Reddit pages and in search results everywhere.

Here's one you may not have predicted: The White House's Coronavirus Task Force now has its own smart TV app to teach people about social distancing and stream its daily news briefings. And it's catching on!

  • The app was built by Powr, whose CEO John Lemp told Protocol's Janko Roettgers that it was important to get the word out about COVID-19. "It's just needed right now," he said. "There is so much misinformation out there."
  • Powr was contacted by the task force in mid-March, and had a first version of the app live in 48 hours. After launching on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and Vizio last month, and getting featured in multiple app stores, Powr is now looking to turn the content into a linear channel for Pluto TV.
  • It's the first time the government has used smart TVs this way in an emergency, and Lemp said that it was a sign of the times: "Users aren't just on Facebook and Google anymore."
  • Users have watched close to 80,000 hours of video so far — not too shabby, considering most PSA clips are just a minute long.

Lemp joked that he got into tech years ago because it wasn't about life-or-death — which raised the stakes for this project even more.

  • He told Janko he only had one thought after being approached to build the app: "Oh my goodness, we can't mess this one up."

Making Moves

Kickstarter is planning layoffs, CEO Aziz Hasan told staff, after the number of projects on the platform dropped about 35% "with no clear sign of rebound." The company's already reduced pay and frozen hiring, but seems to think the worst is yet to come.

Tracy Chan is Twitch's new head of product and engineering for music. Chan was a product director at Spotify for four years before this, and described his new gig as "building a new world of live experiences for artists and fans." Concert livestreams are about to get a lot bigger, that's for sure.

Wayfair appointed Jim Miller as its new CTO. Miller's been in the role since August in an interim capacity, but now it's permanent. He comes with a long resume that includes Google, Amazon and Cisco.

Christian Klein is now SAP's only CEO, as Jennifer Morgan leaves the company after less than a year as its co-chief. No word on where Morgan is headed after 16 years at the company.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: Amazon warehouse workers around the country are planning to strike this week. Whole Foods may be using heatmaps to track employees who are thinking of unionizing. The next Y Combinator class will be fully remote. More than 2 billion phones could be left out of Google and Apple's contact-tracing plan. And Best Buy is getting ready to send staff back into people's homes.
  • Don't miss this story from The Information about Travis Kalanick's CloudKitchens, which seemed like the perfect pandemic business but has actually run into trouble trying to expand.
  • Some Zoom customers have known about its security issues for years. One of them, Dropbox, even held a hackathon encouraging people to hack Zoom, and security researchers and engineers have been finding flaws for a long time.
  • Walmart sold its Vudu streaming service to Fandango. Vudu's always been one of the streaming services nobody talks about even though it's used by millions of people, but Walmart's been trying to offload it for a while. It gives Fandango a new way into the movie business, which it needs more than ever now that nobody's buying tickets.
  • Alibaba is spending $28 billion to compete in the cloud wars. Cloud computing is already one of the company's biggest and fastest-growing businesses, but with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and even Tencent and Baidu making moves in the market, Alibaba wants to win and do it quickly.
  • The FCC approved Ligado's plan for a nationwide, low-power 5G network, despite many loud objections.
  • Some tech bigwigs are already activating doomsday plans. Business Insider reported that a number of execs made it into New Zealand before coronavirus-related lockdowns started.

One More Thing

Now that's what I call remote work

My work from home gear involves a lot of sweatpants and a comfy chair. For NASA's Matt Gildner, life's a little more complicated: He's at home, wearing 3D glasses, helping pilot the Curiosity rover around the surface of Mars. The Verge has a great story about Gildner and other NASA employees who have had to figure out how to continue to explore the universe while cooped up in their own homes. If you need me, I'll be rewatching "Gravity" on my phone, just to get a sense.

A MESSAGE FROM EXCELLA

Excella

If you can't see how AI makes its decisions, how can you trust the results?

The answer lies in Explainable AI or XAI.

Explainable models provide transparency — so you can stay accountable to customers, build trust, and make decisions with confidence.

Learn more about Explainable AI (XAI)

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Craig Newmark's name. Updated April 21.

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